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Powerful pop mogul now facing the music

After a much-watched celebrity trial, a jury decides whether to send "Puffy" Combs to prison.

After sitting through six weeks of grueling legal combat, hip-hop mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs is awaiting the verdict of 12 jurors, who completed a second day of deliberations Thursday without reaching a decision.

If found guilty, Combs, one of the richest, most famous singer-producers in pop music today, could face 15 years in prison.

The trial stems from an incident at a crowded hip-hop party in a midtown Manhattan nightclub during the wee hours of Dec. 27, 1999. As Combs and his entourage were leaving the club, a man angrily threw money in the mogul's face.

According to the prosecution's version of events, one of Combs' friends, rap singer Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, fired a pistol, missing his target but wounding three bystanders. Combs, singer-actor Jennifer Lopez, who was then his girlfriend, and bodyguard Anthony "Wolf" Jones fled in a Lincoln Navigator.

When police finally chased the luxury SUV to a halt, they found a gun inside. Later, at the station house, prosecutors say, Combs tried to bribe his driver, Wardell Fenderson, into giving false testimony.

Combs, ranked in 1999 by Forbes magazine as No. 16 on the list of the 100 most powerful entertainers, is charged with two counts of illegal gun possession and one count of bribing a witness. Jones and Barrow also are on trial in this case. Jones faces the same counts as Combs. Barrow is charged with attempted murder.

The trial has not been easy for the 31-year-old Combs. There have been reports that he has lost 20 pounds. Midway through the testimony, he and Lopez announced they had broken up.

But through the six weeks, he has kept his business going, working his cell phone during courtroom breaks. In addition to a multimillion-dollar producing deal with Arista that allowed him to form Bad Boy Entertainment, Combs has opened restaurants in New York and Atlanta named after his son Justin, created a clothing line and started a magazine.

When Combs was arrested, police took what he had on him: 81 $100 bills, six $20 bills, one $10 bill and seven $1 bills.

Prosecution witnesses

Of the 61 witnesses called during the trial, prosecutor Matthew Bogdanos put on 45, including the waitress who served champagne to Combs that night.

Everyone agrees Club New York was packed with at least 800 people when the gunfire erupted. Most also agree that the area where the shooting occurred was as jammed as a subway car during rush hour.

And there's agreement over the argument between Matthew "Scar" Allen, a Brooklyn ex-convict, and Combs' entourage.

Five prosecution witnesses said they saw an angry Combs with a gun that night _ including Fenderson, Combs' driver. Fenderson said he saw Combs arm himself with a black semiautomatic pistol before entering the club. But some prosecution witnesses don't agree with each other. One testified he saw Barrow, the rap singer, run counter-clockwise around a circular bar and open fire, while another said Combs and Barrow were standing side by side the entire time. Another who had told the grand jury she had seen Combs with a gun testified at the trial that she could no longer be sure.

Physical evidence: guns

Police Sgt. Jack Konstantinidis testified he arrested Combs shortly after 3 a.m. on Dec. 27, 1999, after Combs fled the shooting in his Navigator. With him were Lopez, the driver Fenderson and Combs' bodyguard Jones. Police found a 9mm semiautomatic Smith & Wesson under the front passenger seat.

Fenderson said that during the entire ride Combs and Jones screamed at him, "Don't Stop!" and "Yo, dog. Where's the stash (trap)?" Police found a secret compartment between the Navigator's rear seats.

Bogdanos said it was a "trap" to hide weapons; Combs called it a "safe" for his valuables and insisted he knew where it was located.

Initially, no one admitted ownership of the pistol found in the vehicle, and all four occupants were arrested. Fenderson initially told two officers it was his gun. He later recanted.

Days later, a second 9mm was turned in to police, who said it was found by a driver for an escort service on Eighth Avenue after Combs' SUV sped by. Barrow, who had been arrested outside the nightclub, also had a gun, a loaded 9mm semiautomatic Ruger.

Combs and Jones were later charged with owning the gun found in the SUV and the one found on Eighth Avenue. Both also were accused of trying to bribe Fenderson into claiming ownership of the gun found in the car.

The tale of the tape

To corroborate Fenderson's story of the bribe, Bogdanos put into evidence a tape-recorded message Combs left on Fenderson's answering machine.

But even its meaning has been debated.

Bogdanos says the tape proves Combs offered a bribe. On it, Combs tells Fenderson, "I want to make you feel comfortable." But Fenderson told the grand jury last year that he thought Combs was trying to comfort him for having lost his job.

Fenderson has since changed his mind, testifying he now feels the comment was a bribe attempt.

While Bogdanos said Combs tried to bribe Fenderson in front of a dozen police, the officers testified they could not hear what the defendants were talking about. The sergeant who transported Combs to the station house testified that after Combs was told all four would be charged unless someone claimed ownership of the pistol in the SUV, Combs said, "Okay, deal. When I get back to the precinct, I'm going to find out whose gun it is."

Another shooter?

While spent shell casings from Barrow's Ruger were found on the floor of the nightclub, the ballistics evidence is problematic for the prosecution.

Police Detective William Wallace of the crime scene unit testified that in addition to the 9mm casings, two deformed .40-caliber bullets and two .40-caliber shell casings were found in the club.

The presence of the .40-caliber bullets suggests that another unidentified person also fired that night.

Bogdanos has suggested that perhaps the bullets were from an earlier shooting. However, nightclub owner Michael Bergos testified that the Dec. 27, 1999, shooting was the only one to have occurred in the club.

Experts also testified that there is no way to link the victims' injuries to the guns Combs and Barrows are accused of carrying because lead fragments remain in two victims.

The problem with Scar

Allen was a crucial prosecution witness, as his argument with Combs allegedly sparked the shooting. But he does not come without his own baggage. He is a felon who was most recently arrested on charges of possessing a .45-caliber gun on New Year's Day. Three warrants were issued for his arrest after he fled to Maryland last month.

Even though he was finally located, it was presumably too risky to put him on the stand. Jurors instead heard an account Allen gave Bogdanos in January, 13 months after the incident.

Thus he was unavailable to be cross-examined on how he was able to see Combs and Barrow with guns when he was turning to flee the club, as he said.

Going for the money?

Benjamin Brafman, the main attorney in Combs' high-powered defense team, which also includes Johnnie Cochran, argued in an outraged tone both in his opening statement and in his closing comments that Combs is being unfairly accused just because he is a celebrity.

His fame has made him a vulnerable target for headline-seeking prosecutors and fortune-seeking witnesses, Brafman said.

Defense lawyers also have made much of the multimillion-dollar lawsuits the three victims have filed against their clients, suggesting in questioning that a civil suit has a better chance if Combs is convicted in a criminal trial.

Each of the three victims shot that night has filed lawsuits ranging from $40-million to $400-million.

Fenderson has filed a $3-million suit against Combs.

_ Information from the Boston Globe, Newsday, USA Today and Associated Press was used in this report.

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